Ninth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Mexican Rancher’s Claim Against Utility

PASADENA (CN) – Reviving a 2010 San Diego case, a Ninth Circuit panel found a Baja California property owner can pursue his claims against utility company Sempra Energy for conversion of his 672-acre ranch to build a $1 billion power plant.

The three-judge panel rejected U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo’s ruling in favor of Sempra Energy on Ramon Eugenio Sanchez Ritchie’s conversion claim for his personal property along the Mexican coast in the beach town of Ensenada.

Sanchez’s attorney, Kirk Hulett, said in an email that he is “glad the dismissal of Mr. Ritchie’s conversion claim was reversed,” and he is “looking forward to presenting the case to a jury.”

Sanchez sued Sempra in 2010, accusing the powerful energy company of paying off Mexican officials to have him thrown in jail, his family evicted from their property and their home bulldozed so it could build a $1 billion power plant on the land.

In February 2007, the Second Criminal Court in Ensenada found probable cause that Sanchez had committed the crime of dispossession of real property. As a result, he landed in jail and his family was evicted.

But the rancher maintains the 2007 order and other earlier interim orders were obtained by “fraud or perjury” after the utility filed bogus purchase agreements for the land and his family was kicked out.

After a five-year-long legal battle in San Diego’s federal court, Bencivengo ruled in favor of Sempra in Sept. 2015.

Sanchez appealed that decision a month later.

The Ninth Circuit panel sent the case back to San Diego’s federal court Friday, finding that the court had based its decision on a transitory, rather than a local, action.

“Although [Sempra subsidiary Energia Costa Azul] secured a court order in September 2006 evicting Sanchez Ritchie from the property, Sanchez Ritchie alleged in the [second amended complaint]  that the order did not authorize the taking of his personal property,” the panel wrote in its unsigned opinion.

According to the 2010 lawsuit, the Superior Court for the Tenth District of Baja California found Sanchez was the legal possessor of the property and absolved him of criminal liability. The Baja court also found the utility and its Mexican subsidiary knew the rancher was the lawful owner of the coastal land since as early as July 2001.

Mexican billionaire Jose Susumo Azano Matsura is named as counter defendant in the case. The businessman, who’s facing criminal charges in San Diego’s federal court for illegally funding political campaigns, has financially backed Sanchez’s case against Sempra and stands to receive money and land if the rancher prevails, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Despite the panel finding that Bencivengo prematurely ruled in favor of Sempra, the rancher’s malicious prosecution claim for counterclaims filed against him by Sempra failed, with the panel determining that Sanchez provided no evidence Sempra knew he was the rightful owner of the property and not the sellers – Luis Armando Navarro Pena and Elodia Gomez Castanon – the utility purchased the land from.

U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Paez, Marsha Siegel Berzon and Morgan Christen sat on the panel.

Hulett is with San Diego law firm Hulett Harper Stewart.

Sempra did not reply to a phone request for comment.


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